Monday 26 September 2016

Festival was great, but could be better

Range of options at Cheltenham undermines championship ethos

Published 21/03/2016 | 02:30

Owner Michael O'Leary (far left), jockey Bryan Cooper and trainer Gordon Elliott all raise their arms in triumph as Don Cossack is led back into the winner's enclosure at Cheltenham on Friday Photo: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE
Owner Michael O'Leary (far left), jockey Bryan Cooper and trainer Gordon Elliott all raise their arms in triumph as Don Cossack is led back into the winner's enclosure at Cheltenham on Friday Photo: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE

We hoped it might be epic, and it was.

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The 2016 Cheltenham Festival had it all.

Racing in itself is a unique sport, but nothing encapsulates the potential for mayhem quite like those four days in the Cotswolds every March.

When you put two teams on a pitch or two boxers in a ring, the range of potential outcomes can be whittled down to two or three.

Of course, how any given verdict is reached between the lines of battle is where the real beauty lies, with the back-stories usually providing colour and perspective.

With jump racing in particular, though, the element of chaos is unquantifiable, and the sheer drama and unpredictability of it all is what makes it so compelling.

Alright, there were winning favourites, but never is the sense of expectation and the scale of what's at stake so heightened as it is at Prestbury Park in March; every screw is tightened and every inch doggedly contested.

As a consequence, in what will long endure as the most spectacular natural amphitheatre on the planet, we are served up thrilling sporting theatre. That much was as true as ever this year - even from the point on Tuesday morning when Willie Mullins threw the cat among the pigeons with Vautour.

Controversy

There's always a splash of controversy. Had they the situation over again, all concerned would do things differently, and there are three things to note in the affair that we were all duped into forgetting.

The first is that, in the case of Rich Ricci, it is the champion trainer who decides on what runs where - in contrast to the situation with Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown firm, for obvious reasons that include O'Leary's array of trainers. Listen to Mullins.

The second point to reiterate is that, where possible, and especially at Cheltenham, Mullins's modus operandi is to spread his horses about to exploit as many opportunities as is practical.

He wants to win races - the basic foundation upon which he has built his relentless behemoth - not to make races great. That's not his job - he is only adapting to the environment in which he exists.

The third point, lest anyone was in any doubt, is that you take everything you hear at a Cheltenham preview night with a large pinch of salt.

They exist for entertainment purposes, and, while Ricci should have known better than to be so categorical as to say it was the Timico Gold Cup or nothing at one in the preamble, we should maybe have known better than to abandon all other logic and accept it for more than what it was - an expressed desire exaggerated for effect.

Mullins was never quite so categorical. He stressed the Gold Cup was the way that he was leaning, but he left Vautour in three championships to the end.

If Un De Sceaux had gone lame, I suspect the Queen Mother Champion Chase would have been his destination, and, strictly on finishing positions, Mullins would then also have won the Ryanair Chase with Valseur Lido.

Again, that would have been in keeping with his long-held philosophy, and it is also important to acknowledge that, of all Mullins's incredible list of correct marginal calls and serene training feats last week, getting Vautour there in the shape he did was surely his finest.

In light of what transpired, some might question the veracity of suggestions that Vautour had been working poorly and was only operating at 90pc of his capability, but the vibes from Closutton in the run up to the event are consistent with that.

In the end, Mullins opted for the easier option, hoping that a below-par Vautour might win a Ryanair and not be subjected to a gruelling Gold Cup encounter.

Mullins was vindicated on those grounds, but we reserve the right to bemoan certain aspects of the way that the Festival has evolved.

In short, for all that it throws up the odd gem, the existence of a soft touch like the Ryanair serves only to devalue one or other of the Gold Cup and Champion Chase.

Thankfully the latter event was spectacular this year, but the Gold Cup went from looking like a renewal for the ages to being a little thin at the top, given the calibre of horse around.

Last year's winner Coneygree was unavoidably absent, and then we lost the 2015 third, Road To Riches, to the Ryanair, before Vautour joined him, along with Valseur Lido - a horse that would have added plenty to the Gold Cup over a more suitable trip.

Friday's climax was still compelling and threw up a superb winner in Gordon Elliott's Don Cossack, and it is imperative to stress that his status as the best staying chaser around is not being questioned.

I fancied Vautour first and Cue Card on the day, but it was Don Cossack that went and did it.

Given the manner of his superiority, you couldn't say with any surety that Vautour or Cue Card would have beaten him had things unfolded differently. That the issue is up for debate is the regret.

Many believe Vautour is simply the best horse in training, a theory that was in no way undermined by his majestic rout on Thursday.

To then have the sport's definitive title-fight take place without him was somewhat incongruous.

A championship race should stage a showdown between the best horses and jockeys and establish the kingpin. It's the battles we remember, not the processions.

It's the same story with the mares' hurdle, a Grade One that not only lacks any depth on an annual basis but deprives a proper Grade One of a worthy contender.

Imagine the clashes that Big Buck's and Quevega could have had, and might Vroum Vroum Mag have tested the brilliant Thistlecrack's mettle?

Would Annie Power have troubled Faugheen in 2015? We'll never know, but, by dint of Quevega's existence, Annie Power did play her part in an unforgettable World Hurdle when a gallant second to More Of That in 2014.

Now, thanks only to Faugheen's misfortune, her status as the greatest mare we've seen since Dawn Run is set in stone.

Annie Power was a brilliant Champion Hurdle victor, dictating affairs from the off en route to stamping her authority all over the opposition in a time that was officially a record, notwithstanding the changing methods of timing.

It would have been a travesty if she never ran in the race, but, by creating so many options, that is the situation that has been manufactured.

Mercifully, just in the nick of time, fate prevailed.

Star of the week - Don Cossack

We can analyse things to death and wonder about this or that, but Don Cossack ran in the sport's pinnacle event and prevailed courtesy of a flawless performance. End of.

Best training performance - Willie Mullins

Cases could be made for the rarefied exploits of Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson, but Mullins is a maestro. Not just did he get his team there in rude shape, but, by and large, he got the marginal calls right. He and Ruby Walsh's figures over the four days with horses priced 9/2 or less read 2111121112. Impressive enough!

Riding performance - Bryan Cooper in the Gold Cup

Having spurned Don Poli for a horse with a lesser Cheltenham record that some felt he didn't get a great tune out of, the 23-year-old produced the finest display of his career on his toughest assignment.

Despite the context, Cooper threw caution to the wind. He rode Don Cossack like he was the best horse in the race and filled him with confidence. Given what was at stake and how demanding his employers are, it was some effort.

It hadn't happened for him at times on the big days since he usurped Russell as Gigginstown's number one, but, this time, he made it happen. The mark of a champion.

Theme - Redemption

Annie Power and Don Cossack made it third time lucky at the Festival in glorious style; Sprinter Sacre came back from the dead; Cooper shrugged off his shackles and Colm Murphy continued his renaissance.

Coincidence - the big double

In each of the last four years that an Irish horse has won the Gold Cup, they have also won the Champion Hurdle - 2005, 2006, 2014 and 2016.

Thought - Things can turn so quickly in this game

After two days of frustration and the loss of No More Heroes, Michael O'Leary's misery was compounded when Alpha Des Obeaux, Valseur Lido and Road To Riches filled three of the four place spots in Thursday's Ryanair features that he sponsors.

Then Empire Of Dirt won, followed soon after by Fire In His Eyes - at Wexford! - and the ship turned. Don Cossack's triumph completed his roller-coaster week.

Honourable losers - many

Shaneshill and My Tent Or Yours have been second in three Festival Grade Ones, so could yet emulate Get Me Out Of Here's four in handicaps. Willie Mullins, meanwhile, has been second in six Gold Cups, while Sizing John has been second to the mighty Douvan four times, thrice in Grade Ones.

Since November 2014, he has won each of the three races that he has contested that Douvan hasn't. Ugh!

Tweet of the weekend

Aidan McGarry (@Aidan_m_)

14 Irish trained winners for 6 trainers; £2.2m in prize-money including a Gold Cup & a Champion Hurdle. Great week!

An easy sell for Irish Thoroughbred Marketing's Aidan McGarry.

Numbers Game

71 - Aggregate Irish wins at Cheltenham since 2011. The average was 11.4 wins prior to the event, and, after a record-equalling haul, it is now 11.8. The new norm is just incredible.

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